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Do As They Say, Not As I Do


Before I had children, I’d recover from a stressful workday by spending an hour with a game. After having children, this ritual (like everything else) became exponentially more complicated. I had dreamt in my youth that, when I became a parent, my as-seen-on-TV “bonding moments” with my children wouldn’t involve fishing or football; instead, they would involve consoles and controllers. But life rarely goes as you hope or plan.

I want to be a good dad. I also want my kids to understand why I love the things I love, and how to properly appreciate them without getting obsessive.

The eldest of my three children has a unique temperament. According to the best child psychology professionals I could find, Andrew has a Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). The official medical transcript cites PDD-NOS (the “NOS” being “not otherwise specified”). But the doctors said that, in a few years, they can be certain whether or not Andrew’s diagnosis could be refined to ADHD, or something on the Autism Spectrum, such as Asperger’s. Also slapped on the menu of DSM-IV-approved diagnoses for my son was Sensory Integration Disorder. That term on its own has a variety of meanings, but for Andrew, it means that sudden drastic changes in auditory or visual stimulus can send him into a panic. A house fly can ruin his entire day; if I had known his diagnosis beforehand, I’d never have attempted initiating games of “peek-a-boo” from around corners.

The Sensory Integration Disorder is treatable, and in the last year we’ve seen significant improvements thanks to regular therapy sessions and prescribed treatments we’d use at home — body brushes, special headphones with extra-special audio, the works — but the lingering behavioral issues aren’t something to be “fixed.” Especially for anyone within the bounds of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders), the best that can be hoped for is empathy for all parties, and adjustment for the one who is not “neurotypical.”

(Relevant aside: To The Moon is a great indie game that broaches the subject of ASD.)

I have worked diligently to read and understand all the advice I could from local and published experts. When sources conflicted, I’d trust Andrew’s local therapists over anything I could read in a book or on the Internet.

I want to be a good dad. I also want my kids to understand why I love the things I love, and how to properly appreciate them without getting obsessive. Essentially, I want to my fatherhood to look like the Film Nerd 2.0 project, just with videogames.

One day, after demonstrating the joys of a particular game to Andrew (I believe it was Braid), he had an enormous meltdown. We’ve all seen little kids have tantrums, but special-needs kids put a 10th-power multiplier on certain tantrums. I remember in my youth wanting to play a game after having it turned off; heck, I still have that feeling on occasion. But Andrew’s reaction was so ferocious and overwhelming that I decided to ask his therapists what I could do to help him transition in and out of gaming sessions.

Their advice? “Limit all ‘screen’ time and don’t give him any access to videogames.”

At first, I wanted to dismiss this advice as generation-gap technophobia. But, in prying further as to their reasoning, I found a very smart, pragmatic way of thinking. It goes like this: If it’s not necessary for the child’s development, and it causes problems when introduced, cut it out.

So I tried “cutting it out.” My own gaming time was now limited to those rare and brief periods when I was home and awake but Andrew was either not home or asleep. I chalked it up to being a requirement of responsible parenthood and moved forward with life.

It didn’t take too long to discover that it wasn’t just videogames that could consume my son’s every waking thought. After getting a special “Super Mario” edition chess set from an in-law for Christmas, Andrew begged me to teach him how to play the game. I was skeptical that a 5-year-old could learn the rules, but after a few weeks, he was picking up basic piece-protection strategy. Of course, this happened because of his insistence that we play multiple times a day; and I, looking for opportunities to bond with my son, was only happy to oblige.

Over time, chess became the only thing he’d want to talk about, and my attempts to decrease the amount of time we spent with the game brought about the exact same mega-tantrums I’d witnessed with the videogames. Disturbing as this was, I chose to distance myself from the momentary experience and consider, as an intellectual exercise, why this would be the case. I was hoping, secretly, that this would be my chance to overthrow the logic of the expert psychologists and therapists and re-introduce my son to videogames. The way I saw it, limitation from one form of entertainment would only force him to narrow and/or redirect his desires, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s a videogame, a board game, singing songs, or free-play with toy cars. With that in mind, I should be able to take Andrew back to the world of videogames and start working on what I had identified as the true root problem: addictive personality traits.

My next chat with the therapists revealed to me more than I had, perhaps, wanted to know. Nonetheless, it was important information.

With Andrew’s unique neural wiring, he’s in a position where screen-based interactive entertainment is the “perfect poison.”

The explanation I received regarding my parallel between the game of chess and Andrew’s favorite videogames (Braid, Swords and Soldiers, various Mega Man titles, and edutainment on pbskids.org) was that this was a two-pronged problem. And, with Andrew’s unique neural wiring, he’s in a position where screen-based interactive entertainment is the “perfect poison.”

Though I’ve heard it argued by pro-gamers that there is an anti-gaming bias in studies involving the brain and screen-based entertainment, multiple studies have had similar findings as the 1998 study from Nature showing that the dopamines released during interactive screen-based entertainment sessions (i.e. videogames) can create the patterns and neural pathways that lead to addiction. The sense that “this is good, and without this, nothing is good” is a key component to addiction. Andrew’s therapists were quick to relate this experience to drug or alcohol addiction.

However, I challenged these therapists with secondhand testimonies demonstrating the unique capability of videogames (and other screen-based technology) to allow autistic individuals to express themselves and connect with other people. The therapists agree that such technology can be useful for individuals who are severely autistic, but Andrew is responsive in general conversation and is what they would call “high-functioning.” In other words, he doesn’t need the tool.

I challenged the idea that the cycle of addiction with videogames was no less threatening than any other thing he could obsess over, and cited this article as backup. At this point, the therapists explained to me why the chess game was, in fact, a different neurological experience, even if the same end result (meltdown) was observed.

Chess, like any game, follows a set of rules. For any child, neurotypical or not, the early years of life are all about observing and memorizing rules. However, the free-form experience we call “life” has so many complicated rules (schedules, social norms, etc.), it’s much easier to focus on something that has a finite set of rules. Hence, chess. Or, should you prefer it, Tic-Tac-Toe. The opportunity to learn and succeed in the structured world of a game gives Andrew a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that he likely isn’t getting in day-to-day life. Videogames, too, operate within defined parameters, and Andrew loves learning and understanding those parameters and then succeeding within them.

But, again, the experience with screen-based entertainment is that the rewards come more immediately, and are more flashy, and capture our attention in such a way that we forget the real world. Quite literally, in fact. Andrew’s Sensory Integration Disorder makes it harder for him, compared to his peers, to move and act in a way that is “normal.” When localizing the requirements of the entire body to the eyes, ears, and fingers, the experience changes.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. According to the therapists, who are acting not just on scientific studies but firsthand experience working with children “on the spectrum,” the metaphor between the alcoholic and the screen-loving child breaks down in the sense that re-learning at a neurological level can happen, especially at this young age. Whereas a recovered alcoholic is still an alcoholic and cannot ever have an alcoholic beverage without bringing on that strong sense of addiction (i.e. – pleasure is found here and only here), the child’s neural pathways can be reworked and rerouted via therapy and a stable environment.

In other words, with enough time and effort, Andrew’s desire to “learn the patterns” of real life will be just as rewarding as they would be in a videogame, or even in chess. Such is the case, for example, for an adult male who discovers later in life that he is not neurotypical (thanks This American Life for this great report). For Andrew, once he’s at a place in his life that he can enjoy quote-unquote real life as much as he enjoys the pre-structured, pixelated worlds that I also adore, he’ll be able to pick up a game and then walk away from it without those painful feelings of withdrawal.

After all of these discussions had taken place, my wife and I were resolved to keep Andrew from playing videogames or even watching his father play videogames. The latter part I’m still struggling with internally, but externally, we’ve explained all of this to Andrew (in a way that makes sense to him) and life continues with fewer meltdowns. I look forward to the day that I can make good on my special father-son bonding times, but with Andrew’s condition and a long life ahead of us, there’s no need to rush.

Patrick Gann is a freelance writer who moonlights as a responsible adult. His personal blog and podcast are found at gameosaurus.com

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